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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

March 25, 2005

Air Date: March 25, 2005

FULL SHOW

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SEGMENTS

Judicial Nominees / Jeff Young

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Senate Democrats are headed for a showdown over President Bush's picks for the federal courts. What's at stake for the environment? As Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports, a lot. ()

Weighing the Judges

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Federal judges, nominated by the President for lifetime appointments determine many environmental cases. A new study suggests if you look at which party nominated them, you can predict how judges will rule under the National Environmental Policy Act. Host Steve Curwood talks with Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago, who has written extensively on judicial bias. ()

Yucca Woes

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Storing nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain has been a long and bitter debate between the federal government and the local residents. Now there are reports that key geological research had been falsified; data that was to determine the safety of the site. Host Steve Curwood talks with Jonathan Turley, a professor at George Washington University Law School. ()

The Pile / Sheri Quinn

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An 80 foot tile of uranium tailings sits in Moab, Utah, a remnant of the town's mining history during the Cold War. "The Pile," as locals call it, sits along the banks of the Colorado River and leaches thousands of chemicals into the river daily. Five years ago, the Department of Energy was charged with re-locating the pile but only recently did the agency submit an environmental impact statement with five options suggesting what to do with it. As Sheri Quinn reports, many locals, environmentalists, and public officials of Utah and states downstream are pressuring the DOE to consider only one option. ()

Emerging Science Note/Ouchless Shots

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Living on Earth's Jennifer Chu reports on a painless alternative to the hypodermic needle. ()

Mercury and Autism

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Coal-fired power plants will have to start trading mercury emissions in an effort to cut down on the heavy metal that's been known to bioaccumulate in fish and people. Now there's evidence that makes this goal all the more urgent. Researchers at the University of Texas found a link between the mercury that comes out of smokestacks, and the rate of autism in Texas schools. Host Steve Curwood talks with one of the study's authors, Dr. Claudia Miller. ()

Listener Letters

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This week we dip into the Living on Earth mailbag to hear what listeners have to say. ()

Ranger Cop

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When Jordan Fisher Smith first became a park ranger; he was motivated by the teachings of Thoreau and the ideals of the park system. Little did he imagine the park he would patrol for 14 years would be a virtual Wild West, where miners and guns, not hikers and backpacks, were the norm. Host Steve Curwood talks with Fisher Smith about his new memoirs, Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra. ()

Surf's Up!

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Commentator Bonnie Auslander ponders the pros and cons of sanitized nature CD's. ()

This week's EarthEar selection
listen / download

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Jonathan Turley, Claudia Miller, Jordan Fisher Smith, Cass Sunstein
REPORTERS: Sheri Quinn, Jeff Young
NOTE: Jennifer Chu

[THEME MUSIC]

CURWOOD: From NPR - this is Living on Earth.

[THEME MUSIC – UP AND UNDER]

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood. The Constitution's separation of powers sets out rules for how the branches of government are to behave. And, the judiciary is expected to rule on the basis of fact and law.

MYERS: It is the paramount responsibility of a judge to dispassionately review the law without regard to political persuasion or public opinion--to do anything other than that would be a complete dereliction of duty.

CURWOOD: That's William Myers, whom President Bush has nominated to sit on the Federal Court of Appeals in the ninth district. But, opponents to the Myers nomination allege the judge is biased in a number of areas including environmental protection.

SCHUMER: Your record screams passionate activist; it doesn't so much as whisper impartial judge.

CURWOOD: Judging the judges and more – this week on Living on Earth. Stick around.

[NPR NEWSCAST]

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from the National Science Foundation and Stonyfield Farm.

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Judicial Nominees

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. A showdown is looming over some of the men and women President Bush wants to become federal judges. The president has once again asked the Senate to confirm the few nominees Democrats previously rejected as lacking impartiality, partly because of their views on key aspects of environmental law. A vote on the first of these controversial nominees is expected soon and some legal scholars and activists on both sides of the argument agree on at least one thing. If the president gets his way they say, he could have a profound and lasting impact on how the courts decide environmental cases. Living on Earth's Jeff Young reports.

COURT OFFICIAL: So, with that brief background, let me ask you to stand Mr. Myers for the oath. Do you, William Myers, solemnly swear that the …

YOUNG: William Myers was the first of President Bush's blocked nominees to return to the Senate's Judiciary committee. And, New York Democrat Charles Schumer's reaction shows Myers is in for another tough fight.

SCHUMER: When the president sends us a radical and regressive nominee, one so far out of the mainstream he can't even see the shoreline, we as senators have no choice but to return to sender once, twice or ten times if need be.

YOUNG: Bush selected Myers for the Pacific West's Ninth Circuit Court, which gets major environmental cases about ranching and mining. Schumer notes that Myers spent most of his career as a lobbyist and lawyer for the ranching and mining industries.

SCHUMER: It was you who compared the federal government's management of public lands to quote 'the tyrannical actions of King George over the American colonies.' You've called environmental laws outright top down coercion. Your record screams passionate activist; it doesn't so much as whisper impartial judge.

YOUNG: Myers says he wrote and said those things when he worked for miners and ranchers. As a judge, he would leave that thinking behind.

MYERS: It is the paramount responsibility of a judge to dispassionately review the law without regard to political persuasion or public opinion--to do anything other than that would be a complete dereliction of duty.

YOUNG: On this confirmation vote Myers will have help from one of Washington's biggest business lobbies, the National Association of Manufacturers. NAM President John Engler, the former Michigan governor, is leading a campaign to support the president's nominees and make life tough for any Democrat who gets in the way.

ENGLER: I think that people oppose some of these judges at their peril and our goal is to make it perilous for them.

YOUNG: The manufacturers have never before lobbied for judicial nominees. Engler says it's time they did.

ENGLER: There's no question that there are laws that have been passed that business doesn't like. We can live with that, we can fight to change those. What we can't live with are judges imposing their own view of what the law is.

YOUNG: Engler says the president's picks for the bench will do as Myers promises, make decisions based on law alone. But, a recent study suggests many judges find it hard to shed politics when they put on the robes. The non-partisan Environmental Law Institute looked at how federal judges appointed by Republicans and Democrats decided some environmental cases. Judges appointed by Republicans were far less likely to rule in favor of environmental plaintiffs. And, judges appointed by President Bush have ruled in environmentalists' favor only four times in two dozen cases. The president's critics say that happens because he picks his judges from business and industry. Reporter Dan Noyes of the Center for Investigative Reporting looked into that in an online report called Courting Influence.

NOYES: We determined 21 out of 59 of the candidates we looked at had substantial corporate connections and then also a substantial number of those corporations were linked to energy and mining interests.

YOUNG: The law calls for a federal judge to sit out cases involving a former client. But, others say the real concern is not where the nominees worked, but the judicial philosophy that drives that work.

FEINMAN: The ideological orientation here is what's most important.

YOUNG: That's Jay Feinman, professor at the Rutgers School of law and author of the new book, "Un-Making Law."

FEINMAN: What we worry about is not that someone was a former lawyer or lobbyist for the mining industry and therefore they will favor mining companies in their decisions. But, they have a general ideology that business ought to be able to do its business and government should get out of the way.

YOUNG: That sounds just fine to David Stirling, a former California lawmaker and judge now with the Pacific Legal Foundation, a law firm that's worked since the 70's to expand private property rights.

STIRLING: We feel that is the view all members of the court ought to have. That they ought to be protecting individual and economic freedoms as compared to advancing the government's agenda.

YOUNG: Let's say a highway is going through your yard. The Fifth Amendment says the government has to pay you to take that property. Stirling and the Pacific Legal Foundation say when regulations limit use of property, it's the same as taking it and the government should pay. It's a hugely controversial interpretation of the law but one Stirling says many Bush's nominees share.

STIRLING: The judges that this president has appointed are those that seem to have a view relative to property rights and land use that is consistent with what Pacific Legal Foundation believes is the proper reading of the founding documents of this country.

YOUNG: And, if they were to win spots on the courts most important to environmental issues, Stirling says those few judges would have a big impact on laws like the endangered species act.

STIRLING: What will happen is that the government will not impose those regulations as severely as it has in the past and that will bring about a balance. And, it will make the government to make the members of the Congress, it will make the bureaucracy much more careful in protecting individual and economic freedoms as well as the species.

YOUNG: Stirling says that would restore a healthy balance. Law Professor Jay Feinman says it would bring a disturbing tilt to the right.

FEINMAN: What we see here really is radical, not conservative, in introducing new ideas in the law by making the government pay every time it requires a farmer to protect an endangered species' habitat or enforce some other environmental regulation. And, since we're running massive budget deficits and we're moving more in the direction of cutting taxes, the government is going to be unable to do that. So, it simply is going to have to stop regulating altogether. And, all of the gains we've seen since Earth Day in 1970 could come to an end.

MYERS: William Myers and other Bush nominees await action on the Senate floor where Democrats indicate they will again use the filibuster to block them. Republicans warn that they might change Senate rules to remove the filibuster from judicial votes. A change so dramatic, it's called the nuclear option. It could bring the Senate to a standstill. For Living on Earth, I'm Jeff Young in Washington.

Related links:
- Courting Influence
- Pacific Legal Foundation
- Defenders of Property Rights
- Earthjustice on Judges

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Weighing the Judges

CURWOOD: The non-partisan Environmental Law Institute has a surprising new study about judges. If you look at which party nominated them, you can predict the odds of how judges will decide cases under the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA mandates that the federal government produce environmental impact statements before it undertakes or funds new projects. The language of the law is vague so there is a wide range of interpretation. Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, who's written extensively on judicial bias, is here with us now to talk about this study as well as some of his own. Professor Sunstein, thanks for joining us.

SUNSTEIN: Hello to you.

CURWOOD: What did the Environmental Law Center find?

SUNSTEIN: They found two major things. The first is that if you're in a trial court, a regular district court, just one judge, the likelihood that you're going to win, if you're complaining that the government hasn't complied with a National Environmental Policy Act, is way higher if you have a Democratic appointee who's deciding the case than if you have a Republican appointee who's deciding the case. The disparity is enormous. Fifty-nine percent of the time the Democratic appointees vote for pro-environment plaintiffs under the national environmental policy act, almost 60 percent of the time. For Republican appointees, it's 28 percent of the time. That's a lot lower, less than half. They also found, that is the Environmental Law Institute, also found, that on the Courts of Appeals, you do terrifically well if you're a pro-environment plaintiff if you have three Democratic appointees. Seventy-five percent of the time you win in an all Democratic panel. If you have a three-Republican panel, a Republican-dominated panel, the pro-environment plaintiffs do terribly. They win just 11 percent of the time.

CURWOOD: What do you make of this?

SUNSTEIN: It's a stunning number. It's a very dramatic finding and the reason is that judges are supposed to follow the law and we don't ordinarily think that everything turns on whether you get a Republican or Democratic appointee in the trial court. But, in this case, the numbers aren't just different; they are startlingly different.

CURWOOD: Now, if it depends on the judge you get, if that is true, then the upcoming judicial appointments that the presently conservative administration would like to make would then be tipping the balance then in favor of a particular direction.

SUNSTEIN: That's absolutely right. And the people in the White House and the Bush administration are perfectly aware of this. So, when they say they just want judges who follow the law, they know. What they mean is they want judges who will understand the law in a way that they find sensible and appropriate. And, that means they will not be as environmentally attuned as the Democratic appointees would be.

CURWOOD: This imbalance in our judiciary, to what extent is this most striking in environmental cases or are we seeing it across the board in other areas as well?

SUNSTEIN: It's very striking in environmental cases, but we see it in some areas, too. Let me give you a couple areas where we don't see it. Most important in criminal law, Americans typically believe that Democratic judges are more pro-criminal than the Republican appointees and it just isn't so. In criminal appeals, at least, Republican appointees and Democratic appointees are just about the same. Most people think that Republican judges are more concerned to protect property rights than Democratic judges. There's no evidence of that. On the protection of property rights, the Democratic appointees and the Republican appointees are about the same. In cases involving disabled Americans, there's a huge difference between Republican appointees and Democratic appointees. It's not quite as big as in the environmental context. But, in cases where someone's bringing a lawsuit under the Americans with Disabilities Act, you have a 27 percent chance of getting a Republican appointee to vote for you. You have a 43 percent chance of getting a Democratic appointee to vote for you. In sex discrimination, it's also true. The Democratic appointees are much more sympathetic to women complaining of sex discrimination than Republican appointees are. The biggest of all is on gay rights. It's even higher than environmental cases where Republican appointees almost never vote for gays and lesbians who are challenging discrimination. Democratic appointees vote for them over half the time. So, that's a very big difference.

CURWOOD: Almost never?

SUNSTEIN: Republican appointees, 16 percent of the time, so real small.

CURWOOD: Cass Sunstein is a professor at the University of Chicago Law School. Thanks so much for taking this time with me, today.

SUNSTEIN: Thank you very much. I enjoyed it.

CURWOOD: To read the complete Environmental Law Institute study about bias in the federal judiciary, go to our Web site, Living on Earth dot org. Coming up—allegations of wrong doing in the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Louis Armstrong "Savoy Blues" Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues--A Musical Journey (Universal Music Ent.) 2003]

Related link:
ELI study on NEPA cases

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Yucca Woes

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The proposal to store highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants and other sources in Yucca Mountain in Nevada has hit yet another snag in its 25-year saga. And, these latest troubles come with possible signs of scandal. The attorney general of Nevada has asked the attorney general of the United States to investigate allegations that key safety data has been falsified. The allegedly falsified data concerns rates of water leakage through Yucca Mountain and was used to assert the project will safely hold the deadly waste for thousands of years. The data was provided by experts working for the U.S. Geological Survey on behalf of the Energy Department, according to e-mails dating back to the Clinton administration and released by the Nevada AG. And, with me now is Jonathan Turley. He's a professor at George Washington University School of Law who's sued the government in several high profile environmental cases. Professor Turley, hello, sir.

TURLEY: Hello.

CURWOOD: Explain to me what's going on there now with this question of falsified measurements.

TURLEY: Well, you could not have a more serious allegation at a more important time. Yucca Mountain has always been controversial and there has been throughout its history, a series of failures or controversies regarding the viability of that site. This is only the latest, but it comes at a critical time. President Bush just sent a recommendation to Congress on the site and we were finally looking after long years of litigation when the first trucks could literally roll. There was a plan to start putting material in the repository in 2010. It was pushed back to 2015 and now there's even speculation that it could never occur.

CURWOOD: How important is this possibly falsified data?

TURLEY: It's very important for a couple of reasons. One is, there has long been criticism of the Department of Energy that they were blindly committed to the site and that they were not seriously looking for flaws, but rather trying to present data to make their case. And, in that sense, there's been a suspicion that they've created a certain environment, a sort of corrosive environment in which these types of problems will occur.

CURWOOD: Now, the attorney general of Nevada has written to the United States Attorney General Alberto Gonzales asking that the area be secured so that no files or data could be tampered with. What is the AG of Nevada concerned about here?

TURLEY: Well, potentially when you have falsified information going to federal agencies and ultimately to Congress you have the potential for criminal charges. The question is, to what extent would that criminality or misconduct extend up the ranks in the Department of Energy.

CURWOOD: In your view, how likely do you think it is that just rogue elements in the energy department on their own, low-level folks put this together?

TURLEY: I'm very suspicious that individuals would take it upon themselves spontaneously to falsify data that's at a critical juncture. It's not that you're likely to find a smoking gun of a memo to falsify that data, but you will have a sort of World Com situation. What were the conversations with high management? What did they convey and more importantly, what did they expect from these lower-ranked individuals?

CURWOOD: What are the likely scenarios for investigating this set of allegations?

TURLEY: The most obvious branch to investigate would be the United States Congress. They, the Congress has the oversight authority and responsibility to look into these problems. The problem is that Congress is under the same control as the White House and there's not a lot of confidence that you're going to have an aggressive investigation, particularly because the heads of these committees tend to be viewed as pro-industry and pro-Yucca Mountain. The other source would be a criminal investigation. Once you start talking about indictments and grand juries, however, it changes the whole dimension of the case.

CURWOOD: In your opinion, do you think some sort of special prosecutor should be appointed in this case?

TURLEY: Well, you know, that would be ideal because the controversies involving Yucca have never diminished and it's more than just simply "not in my backyard" type of reactions by citizens. There are real questions about Yucca Mountain, they've been raised by government offices, not by citizens' groups. If you are going to use the site for such a high risk and long-term project, the first task, I think, is to assure the public that it is safe, that you haven't put a thumb on the scale. That's why, these allegations are so serious and could not come at a worse time. Just as the administration was about to make the case, particularly to the citizens of Nevada, that all was well, you find that indeed someone did put a thumb on the scale and were not too sure how that affected the evaluation of the site.

CURWOOD: Jonathan Turley is a professor at the George Washington University School of Law. Thanks for taking this time with me, today.

TURLEY: It's my pleasure.

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The Pile

CURWOOD: In the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower made his famous "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations and a number of towns across the country rose to the occasion to mine the uranium for the atomic age. Moab, Utah was one of those towns and it built a booming economy around digging out uranium ore. But, when the demand for uranium dropped in the 1980's, operations in Moab ground to a halt. The town turned to tourism to promote its wilderness and national parks. But, a reminder of Moab's mining legacy—a gigantic mountain of sludgy radioactive waste—remains on the landscape, as does the question of the uncertain future of the radioactive pile. Sheri Quinn has our story.

[SOUNDS OF RIVER FLOWING]

QUINN: The small town of Moab in southern Utah is settled in a fortress of mountains and spiraling canyons. The Colorado River twists and turns and meanders through the area. Judy Carmichael is a longtime Moab resident. Standing on a road overlooking the valley, she calls this "Moab magic."

CARMICHAEL: The La Sal mountains are off in the distance to the south and they are spectacular and then we have a nice drop of red rocks and our valley's surrounded by red rocks. You can't ask for a better view than we have from right here.

Tailings Pile in Moab, Utah.
(Photo: Tom Till ©.)

QUINN: But, amidst this view sits another mountain. This one has a flat top, is covered by a layer of rust-colored dirt and stands 80 feet tall, spreading over 130 acres. The "pile" as it's called by locals is 12 million tons of radioactive tailings perched on the banks of the Colorado River and it causes residents like Carmichael worry.

[KNOCKING SOUND OF TAILINGS PILE]

CARMICHAEL: It looks like it could give us a disaster. A responsible response to something that you know is potentially dangerous to the people that you love, you want it out of their way.

QUINN: Everyday, thousands of gallons of waste comprised of heavy metals, chemicals and radioactive elements used during the uranium extraction process leach from the pile into the groundwater and migrate to the river. Ammonia has reached toxic levels and has killed some endangered fish in the nearby backwater. Water quality officials say drinking water isn't at risk. The pollution gets diluted by the time it reaches users in four states downstream. Moab's locals get their water from another source. Bill Hedden is director of the environmental group, Grand Canyon Trust, which has been at the forefront of trying to get the pile moved. He says the big concern is the likelihood of a flood pushing the entire pile into the river, putting the West's delicate water supply at risk.

HEDDEN: After 1,000 years, one percent of the radioactivity will be gone and all of the other hazards will still be there. So, basically, we're just postponing a problem for our children or grandchildren if we leave it sitting there.

QUINN: The nuclear regulatory commission had approved plans for the owners of the mine, Atlas Minerals Corporation, to pay for capping the pile in its present location. But, the company went bankrupt in 1998 and in 2000; Congress put the Department of Energy in charge of the site and voted to have them move the pile elsewhere. Last year, the DOE put out a draft environmental impact statement with five alternatives for the pile. The three most expensive options involve moving it outside of town at estimated costs of 300 to 500 million dollars. Another alternative mentioned is to do nothing, but that's not considered legally feasible. That leaves the least expensive option of capping the pile estimated at a cost of $200 million. Utah Congressman Jim Matheson believes the DOE wants to take the easy way out.

MATHESON: I think that costs may be trumping what's the right thing to do.

QUINN: Matheson recently held a congressional hearing to call attention to the issue. He worked with Moab residents and environmentalists to organize governors and elected officials of states downstream of the pile to put pressure on the DOE to move it.

MATHESON: For all the down river, there are 25 million or more people living down river from this site, the potential for flooding, which was set as a near certainty, obviously has implications for everyone downstream.

QUINN: Many scientists have found problems with the on-site capping plan. Hydro-geologist and former DOE scientist Kip Solomon questions some of DOE's conclusions. While taking soil samples right across the river from the pile, he found toxic waste had migrated to the other side.

SOLOMON: The Department of Energy has assumed that the hydrologic boundary of the site is the river. And, they have over and over again chosen to not collect any data with one minor exception, even in light of our findings. It's not my responsibility to tend the Department of Energy but I remain astounded that they do not initiate additional studies on the south side of the river.

QUINN: To keep the pile in place, Solomon says the DOE would have to implement more stabilizing measures not included in their plan. He says it would end up costing tax payers more in the long run.

SOLOMON: I don't think that if the true costs were known. I don't think it makes economic sense either. On all fronts it's a bad option and it actually should not be on the table.

QUINN: The Environmental Protection Agency also believes capping this pile isn't a viable plan. EPA spokesperson Max Dodson says the agency gave the on-site option its worst possible rating.

DODSON: That is the exception more than the rule. I mean, we have probably every year between 200 and 300 documents to review. I would suspect that probably less than three percent of our total reviews end up with an environmentally unsatisfactory rating.

QUINN: But, not everyone agrees the pile should be moved. Noel de Nevers is a chemical engineer at the University of Utah. He believes there may be other motives at work, that the risks to the water supply are minimal and it's not worth spending the money to move it.

DE NEVERS: As land use planning, that's not the best use of that land, but if that's the reason for doing it, let's say that out loud. Let's not hide behind the magic words radioactive, drinking water, Colorado River. Lions, tigers, and bears, oh my!

QUINN: The DOE has received over a thousand comments about their environmental impact statement. They say they will review every opinion before they make a decision. Joe Davis is a DOE spokesperson.

DAVIS: What our folks are focusing on right now is what do we need to do both in a regulatory environment and a legal environment and scientifically to make sure that we comply with the law and address this uranium mill tailings pile.

[RUSH OF WATER IN RIVER]

QUINN: Environmentalists and local residents say they are fueled by the "Moab magic" and their concern for the safety of the region and they are determined to continue the fight. Judy Carmichael says she'll make sure the pile remains in the spotlight until it's moved.

CARMICHAEL: I don't think the world realizes how darn tenacious we are. We've been at it since '84. We're not going to wear out. But, I'm going to go to my grave knowing that I did everything in my power to get the pile moved north of this town.

QUINN: The DOE is expected to announce what they will do with the Moab uranium tailings pile this summer. For Living on Earth, I'm Sheri Quinn in Utah.

Related links:
- DOE website on Moab pile
- City of Moab Tailings website
- Rep. Jim Matheson on Tailings Pile

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Emerging Science Note/Ouchless Shots

CURWOOD: Just ahead: New research that shows a close association with autism and the release of mercury from the smokestacks of power plants. First, this Note on Emerging Science from Jennifer Chu.

CHU: You've heard them in the doctor's waiting room. Children screaming in fear of hypodermic needles. But, soon kids may be able to get shots without a needle ever touching their skin. Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a new way to administer shots. Their MicroJet injector can propel medication into the skin by using a small electrical charge. The MicroJet can adapt to differences in skin thickness. In addition the force of the injection can be altered with the electrical voltage to make the liquid penetrate skin between one to eight millimeters deep. The MicroJet is relatively painless as a result of its small size and because it doesn't penetrate the skin like a normal needle. Its nozzle is three times smaller than the thinnest hypodermic needle, making the amount of skin stretched by a jet of medication much smaller than that of a needle. Because the jet's size is so small, there is less of a chance that nerve receptors will be touched, meaning less of a chance for pain. It might also be injected into places where needles are considered too damaging, like for instance, the eye. The MicroJet may also be a boon for those with arthritis by providing a way for patients to inject pain medication into joints that are too shallow for hypodermic needles. That's this week's Note on Emerging Science. I'm Jennifer Chu.

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Mercury and Autism

CURWOOD: Scientific studies have found atypical amounts of the heavy metal mercury in children with autism, a spectrum of neurological disorders associated with communication and behavior problems. But, it has been unclear how much mercury might be involved, until now. Researchers at the University of Texas at San Antonio are reporting that autism rates in school children rise by 17 percent with every thousand pounds of mercury released from smokestacks. These findings only show an association between mercury and autism. They do not prove that mercury causes autism. With me now to discuss these findings is Dr. Claudia Miller. She's a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and co-author of the study. Dr. Miller, hello.

MILLER: Hello.

CURWOOD: How did you do this study?

MILLER: What we did is we obtained data that's publicly available from the Environmental Protection Agency regarding mercury release in 254 Texas counties, and correlated that with information from over a thousand school districts within Texas and looking specifically at the rates of autism in those counties and the rates of special education students in those counties. This was done during 2000, 2001. There was a higher rate, interestingly, in metropolitan areas compared to rural areas, almost a four-fold difference. And, also a higher rate in suburban areas than in rural areas almost a two and a half fold difference.

CURWOOD: Of the autism that was found?

MILLER: Correct.

CURWOOD: Now, how does this chain of events unfold from the point that mercury comes out of the smokestack of a power plant to the point when a child might develop behavioral problems?

MILLER: The mercury that's emitted with the coal burning is associated with particles and those particles that go into the atmosphere, smoke particles, will deposit into bodies of water, rivers, streams, lakes. Fish will take it up after micro-organisms have converted this mercury to a form that is what we call organic mercury which is easily taken up into the body and into the central nervous system. And, as you go up the food chain and finally to man, the levels of mercury increase proportionally.

CURWOOD: So, what might be the mechanisms that this mercury acts on a developing fetus or child. What at these low levels, what might it do?

MILLER: The concern is that mercury would interfere with the connections that neurons form between each other, the synapses as development is occurring. There's a time in development when neurons are pruned, like you prune a bush that are pruned back. And, this may not happen normally in children with autism. It's one of the theories that's been proposed.

CURWOOD: And, by the way, how close is too close to a mercury generating power plant?

MILLER: That's a very good question. Really, when you think about the emissions, they are carried in the air and the fallout of the larger particles would occur sooner than the smaller ones. So, in fact, people living within closer proximity would potentially have more exposure, but we really don't know completely because sometimes these things are carried and then wind currents will drop them down at unpredictable places. So, this is not as simple either as identifying lead paint in a home. In a home, you can go in and remove that paint and we know for sure that that can make a difference in the child's blood lead levels and in their development. And, that's a public health measure that was implemented as a result of multiple studies, actually over decades. I think we shouldn't wait that long.

CURWOOD: Dr. Claudia Miller is a professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. Dr. Miller, thanks for taking this time with me, today.

MILLER: Thank you.

CURWOOD: Just ahead: The magic of the soporific roar of the ocean, courtesy of modern technology. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Hound Dog Taylor and the Houserockers "Give Me Back My Wig" Martin Scorcese Presents the Blues--A Musical Journey (Universal Music Ent.) 2003]

Related link:
University of Texas News Release on Study

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Listener Letters

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood, and coming up: A modern day lone ranger takes on the bad guys in good lands. But first:

[LETTERS THEME]

CURWOOD: Time for comments from you, our listeners.

[LETTERS THEME]

CURWOOD: Our interview with animal communicator Kim Ogden-Avrutik touched off a dogfight in our mailbag over the CD she collaborated on called: "Ask the Animals – Songs to Make Dogs Happy." Doctor Kim, as she likes to be called, says she's can talk with pets and test marketed the songs for the CD by leading doggy focus groups.

"I must say I was very skeptical when I was listening to the interview," writes Kristine Hayes, who hears us on WDUQ in Pittsburgh. "But, the minute 'Squeaky Deaky' began playing, my dog, Chester, came trotting into my kitchen with his head cocked looking for some playtime. I was at first astounded and then amused. I could have sworn he would prefer jazz."

"The piece on Dog Tunes gave us a laugh and set our pup to howling," echoed Edward Grevatt's, a listener to New Hampshire Public Radio.

But, most folks responded with complaints. Winifred Tophoven, who signs her letters "Grandma Winnie," hears us on WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio. "I consider myself to be in the possession of an open mind," she writes. "But, your guest's credibility was beyond the pale. I was disappointed LOE would consider the CD for dogs-lady worthy of my precious time, much less yours.

Joel Whitney, who listens to Living on Earth on WAER in Syracuse, New York, agrees. "I do not object to the project itself; it's silly but ultimately harmless. I do object to the airing of an interview in which the subject makes outrageous and scientifically impossible claims. Such material does a great disservice to the interests of scientists and advocates who have worthy, important issues to discuss."

And, John Luther, a listener on WAMC in Albany, New York writes. "Were you celebrating April Fool's Day early? Please leave the dog talking and novelty CD hucksters for late-night TV and cable news and give us more of the insightful journalism that I heard in the ANWR and global warming stories."

Your comments on our program are always welcome. Call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-99-88.Or, write us at 20 Holland Street, Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. Our e-mail address is comments at loe dot org. Once again, comments at loe dot org. You can hear our program any time on our Web site, Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot org.

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Ranger Cop

CURWOOD: Before taking up his patrol of the American River in northern California, Jordan Fisher Smith thought being a park ranger was an idyllic and rather noble calling, rooted in the theories of preservation and the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Little did he know that the park he wound up patrolling for the next 14 years was less a destination for nature lovers and more of an escape for armed convicts, sociopaths and miners, desperate for one last strike of gold. Still, Jordan Smith and his fellow rangers stuck to their handbooks, trying to preserve land even the federal government had written off. His new book is called "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." Jordan, hello.

SMITH: I'm delighted to be with you, today.

(Photo: Jim Herrington)

CURWOOD: Now, as you describe in your book, you arrived at the American River of the Sierras, with an idyllic view of the kind of land that rangers were meant to protect. What did you see first when you stepped onto this territory?

SMITH: Well, I think it was the strangest park I'd ever seen. It was the inverse of what I understood as a national or state park. This area that I came into, the American River, the north and middle fork, these 48 miles of canyons, was designated by no less than the authority of the United States Congress to be drowned forever under a huge dam. The United States Bureau of Reclamation that had been the author of this dam had bought up some 42,000 acres from either willing sellers or condemned ranchers and miners and homesteaders that lived there and evicted them and eventually burned down all of the dwellings there. So, this place that had been the heart of the goldrush country was rendered back into a sort of accidental wilderness area. However, the Bureau of Reclamation doesn't have its own land management rangers. And, during the time the dam was being built and then during the time the dam was delayed, this area was resettled by itinerant goldminers and squatters of all stripes and a good many fugitives from the law who were living in vehicles and makeshift shacks and tents all over the place. What I found there was a state of near anarchy. A good many people were armed; they pretty much did as they pleased and there were at the time when I got there, I think, five rangers trying to get by in those canyons without getting themselves killed.

CURWOOD: And, so there you are, patrolling and trying to preserve a place which by government intention is supposed to go away. What kind of person would choose to protect a place like that?

SMITH: You know, I can't congratulate myself for ever having chosen that. I more or less arrived there by chance and I probably didn't leave for reasons I still don't entirely understand, but partly out of stubbornness. I thought if we couldn't do a good job as rangers there, then what good was it.

CURWOOD: But, wait a second, it's all going to go away. It's all just going to get …

SMITH: Well…

CURWOOD: Swept away.

SMITH: That was our conceit as rangers. I'm using that in the literary sense. We were sent there to bring the area under control after it had essentially descended into anarchy, people were being found in shallow graves and there were sort of disputes over mining claims. They had sent in the Federal Marshals Service for occasional sweeps and that hadn't worked. So, in 1977, the park rangers that were intended to be sent in later, when the reservoir was finished to run it as a recreational lake, were sent there, merely to get control of it. But, you have to remember that the only law book that a ranger has, is the law book that was designed to preserve these landscapes that make up most of the park system in perpetuity. So, we as rangers, just began enforcing the laws we had and treating the place as if it was a park. And, in some way, I think I knew and I think the other rangers knew that if we could just make it safe to be there, the people who could save that land would come down there and see how beautiful it was and begin working for it.

CURWOOD: So, you joined the cavalry as it were. And, at times your job seems like it could have come out of a classic western novel. I mean, there's a point where you describe a pretty typical, but it sounds like a dangerous part of that gig which was trying to collect the camping fees from miners living in the canyons. And, I'm wondering if you could read for me from that portion of your book, please?

SMITH: I'd be happy to. "I got out and faced him from the other side of the vehicle hood where the engine block between us afforded some cover if I needed it. He looked at me warily, 'Is there a problem?' he asked, arriving at the jimmy. I stepped toward him to stand directly to his right within reach of his gun hand. 'Could you please put that gun on the hood for me?' 'Why? Is there a problem?' His face darkened. 'You've got a gun.' His eyes narrowed. 'So? I haven't done anything illegal.' 'You can't carry it in this or any other state park campground,' I replied. 'This is a state park? No way,' said the miner, 'where's the sign? I thought this was just the American River. Anyway, it's never been a problem before.' Beads of sweat were breaking out on my face. O'Leary was out of the jimmy now, but said nothing. 'Look just put the gun on the hood and then we'll talk,' I told him. He gave me a 'don't you ever turn your back on me look' then slowly unholstered the gun and clunked it down on the hot, green steel of the truck's hood. I moved for it, swiftly but with steady nonchalance. Once it was in my grasp, I spun the cylinder and dumped the ammunition. The gun was loaded with six 357 hollow points. The miner's eyes bore through me. When I finished I turned my citation book toward him. 'What the hell is this for?' he asked. 'I haven't done anything wrong and I told you I'd pay you the next time you come. You don't have to be a jerk about it.' The man looked at O'Leary and his tone changed. 'Hey Ron, you know us, you've never hassled us. Tell your rookie to leave me alone.' 'Just sign the ticket. It's not my call,' O'Leary growled back at the man through his beard and sunglasses. It was plain he wasn't enjoying himself. I couldn't tell if he was more irritated at the miner or at me. Turning back to the miner I continued, 'you have been cited into Georgetown Court. Your appearance date is…' 'You can bet I'll be there,' he snapped back. 'Now, give me back my gun.'

CURWOOD: So, what happened to his gun?

SMITH: Under these circumstances where the gentleman wasn't a felon, the gun would be taken as evidence and at the time he appeared in court and was either sentenced to a fine or released. A release would be made on the gun and he would then come to the evidence custodian at the ranger station. It would be released back to him.

CURWOOD: So, did he come and get his gun?

SMITH: I believe he did, yes.

CURWOOD: But, by the time that happened, I imagine the word had gotten out about Mr. Jordan Fisher Smith, the rookie on patrol now in American Rivers Park.

SMITH: Well, I just did what, and it wasn't just me, you know, it was the other rangers, too, all of us, I think, right around that time realized what a hazard we had. There was gunfire all the time on that place. You'd go out, stand in front of the ranger station and you could hear gunshots at all times of day. And, we began going out and just enforcing the park law, which was that you couldn't carry a loaded gun in the place. And, in the next eight years there, I seized 108 weapons as evidence in these cases.

CURWOOD: Why did you stay as long as you did? What, 13, 14 years?

SMITH: I think there were two reasons. I think that one was that I began to see the incredible beauty of the place. This is a very interesting climate that you have on the west slope of the Sierra. It's the place where the desert southwest meets the Douglas fir nation of the northwest. The evenings in the summer, I worked a lot of evenings, were the most sort of silky warmth, after the setting of the sun there'd be a period of blue twilight. And, I thought that if I couldn't be a ranger there, then what good was it? I thought this was maybe something that I was meant to do. Looking back on it, I guess it was a strange form of protest against the dam. Most protests are done by breaking the law and in this case, it was a protest by enforcing the law, the law of parks in a place that was considered worthless.

CURWOOD: Jordan Fisher Smith has been a park ranger for more than 20 years and is author of "Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra." Jordan, thanks for taking this time with me, today.

SMITH: I really enjoyed it, Steve. Thank you.

[MUSIC: Howlin' Wolf "Wang Dang Doodle" His Best (Chess) 1997]

Related link:
Nature Noir

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Surf's Up!

CURWOOD: Now, if you're having trouble falling asleep, reading might help you relax. But, commentator Bonnie Auslander has an another remedy, even though it may well keep you up at night.

AUSLANDER: Every night my family falls asleep to the sound of waves breaking on the shore. When we hear the water gather, lift, slosh and churn, it's as if our beds are turning into beaches--the baby in his crib beach, the 5-year-old on her big-kid beach, and us, the weary parents, sprawled on the queen-size beach. The grown ups are too tired for even a goodnight kiss yet still desperate for something to swamp the voices in our heads that tell us 'worry, worry, you've got too much to do, worry, worry, you owe too much money.'

Here's the thing: we live hundreds of miles from the ocean, so what we listen to, to help us get to sleep each night is a CD of ocean surf sounds. Every night, it's just waves crashing over and over, the aural equivalent of snowflakes, each one just a little bit different from the last. This time the water eddies before it rises again, the next time it sounds like it's raining a little. Somehow it all adds up to a snowbank of sound so sweet you can rest your head on it and drift away.

But, this week, the part of me that likes to question everything has begun to wonder about the integrity of the sound. Isn't it just a little too pure? A little too clear? These are surf sounds from a world that is far removed from the polluted one I live in. Oh yes, the refuge feels good, but am I being lulled into not just rest and restoration but some kind of passive complacency? Maybe our surf CD is nature porn for the ears in the way some nature photography is nature porn for the eyes? You know those photos on calendars and greeting cards where the apples' cheeks are too red and too cheeky, the lawns too vibrantly green. There are no dark spots on those apples, no dog crap on those lawns, of course, and also no smog, no clearcuts and no fishkills. Those photos can send the message that we don't have to lift a finger to ensure a safe environment for our children.

And, I wondered, is the surf CD having that effect on me? Did the sound engineer edit out the drone of an airplane or the roar of a hi-speed motor boat? And, just what is the sound of an oil slick, hitting the shore?

On the other hand, maybe I'm just making trouble for myself. After all, our ancestors crossed the Savannah and stood open-mouthed at their first glimpse of the sea. And then they built boats to go exploring. Isn't it a human trait to sense the ocean as the beginning of something magical, a place that is both a part of yourself and separate from you, where you can be transformed?

So, maybe the surf CD is just a glorious way to help get us to that place of transformation, back to those very first water sounds any of us ever heard as we sloshed around inside our mothers. Well, tonight, I'm too tired to figure it all out. And, so, I put on the surf and go to sleep. And, in the morning a different set of water sounds, the gurgle and chuckle of the coffeemaker, will wake me up to face a fresh round of contradictions.

CURWOOD: Commentator Bonnie Auslander lives, for now, far from the ocean in the German city of Bonn.

[MUSIC: Brian Eno "Another Green World" Another Green World 1972-73]

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CURWOOD: You can hear our program anytime on our Web site or get a download for your iPod or other personal listening device. The address is Living on Earth dot org. That's Living on Earth dot o-r-g. You can reach us at comments at loe dot org. Once again, comments at loe dot o-r-g. Our postal address is 20 Holland St., Somerville, Massachusetts 02144. And, you can call our listener line at 800-218-9988. That's, 800-218-99-88. CDs, tapes and transcripts are $15.

We leave you this week in another German city, just a short ride north of Bonn. Michael Rüsenberg crafted a "symphony" composed of sounds gathered from the many bridges that cross the Rhine River near Cologne. This section is called Rodenkirchener Brücke.

[EARTHEAR: Michael Rusenberg "Rodenkirchener Brucke"]

CURWOOD: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Chris Ballman, Jennifer Chu and Susan Shepherd--with help from Jennie Cecil Moore and Kelly Cronin. Our interns are Katie Oliveri and Katie Zemtseff. Our technical director is Paul Wabrek and we had help from Robert Auld at the Radio Foundation in New York City. Alison Dean composed our themes. You can find us at living on earth dot org. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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